On Saturday mornings, the entire Carolina Pines Community Center in south Raleigh reverberates with sounds of drumming and shouting from members of the Triangle Taiko and Special Taiko clubs. They’re rehearsing for their performances Saturday, July 29, at the N.C. Japan Summer Festival in Raleigh.
Taiko players (pronounced “tie-ko,” it’s a Japanese word for “drum”) use their whole bodies and even their voices to create elaborate rhythms. Each player in the ensemble lunges and chants while striking a drum that’s often wider than he or she is. It’s a musical form that dates back to sixth century Japan.
Taiko performances are just some of the offerings at the summer festival at the state fairgrounds’ Kerr Scott Building. Visitors will find tea ceremonies, martial arts demos, folk dancing and more, plus food prepared by members of the Nippon Club of the Triangle, the Japanese cultural association hosting the festival.
Rocky and Yoko Iwashima founded the Nippon Club (Nippon means “Japan”) in 1990 after moving to Raleigh from Japan in 1987 because of Rocky’s job at IBM.
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Twenty-seven years later, the club has spinoffs including a traditional Japanese tea club, Bon Odori folk dancing club and taiko clubs. They started the festival 12 years ago.
Triangle Taiko started in 2002 with players banging on trash cans; today, the club has roughly 40 drums and has performed at events from the Raleigh City of Oaks Marathon to North Carolina State University’s Packapalooza.
The Iwashimas started Special Taiko, for players with special needs, a few years later. Their son Taki has Down syndrome and found his place swimming, skiing and playing soccer through Special Olympics.
“We would like to return something for this community,” Rocky Iwashima said of their decision to start Special Taiko. The group now has seven members from ages 19 to 42.
Jennifer Pardus’ son Jonathan, 19, goes to Leesville Road High School in Raleigh and has been in Special Taiko for two years. He already knew Taki Iwashima from their swim team, the Raleigh Racers.
“I like for (Jonathan) to be involved in a lot more activities,” Jennifer Pardus said. “(Rocky) is very patient, and he explains things really well.”
Pardus and the other Special Taiko member will perform at the festival at 3:05 p.m.
The festival is the club’s biggest event of the year – in Japan, many towns have a summer festival with dancing to thank ancestors for the rice harvest, said Yoko Iwashima.
For the past 11 years, the festival’s been outdoors at the North Carolina Japan Center at N.C. State. Last summer’s event had around 1,300 attendees; this year, Rocky Iwashima hopes for 2,000 festivalgoers.
Moving the festival indoors wasn’t easy. The club will have to charge a small admission to pay for renting the facility. The festival usually overlaps with Tanabata, a Japanese star festival celebrating the meeting of two mythical lovers, but due to scheduling conflicts at the fairgrounds, the club had to pick a date about three weeks after Tanabata.
But being inside brings many benefits – now they can extend the festival’s hours and serve sushi, which was too hard to keep fresh when the festival was outside.
The taiko players are glad to be indoors.
“Outside ... there’s been many times when I thought I was going to pass out after a performance,” said Nanako Armstrong, who joined Triangle Taiko in March 2015.
The 28-year-old moved to the United States from Japan when she was 10. Armstrong picked up taiko a few years after moving stateside but left it behind for marching band at Cary’s Green Hope High School.
Armstrong decided to give taiko another try and is happy she did – without Triangle Taiko, she may never have met her husband, Beren Armstrong. At their wedding in March, the couple performed a taiko duet, of course.
Some of the taiko players have Japanese heritage, but many of them, like Jeri Brown, 71, were simply intrigued. She already knew what taiko was when her son, Ethan Brown, joined Triangle Taiko. Jeri Brown joined in 2004, and although Ethan has since left the group, she’s proud to be the member with the most years under her belt besides Rocky and Yoko Iwashima.
“I get a lot of mental and physical exercise out of it,” she said. “We have to memorize everything of course, which is a really good thing. ... Also, I just get to mix with a lot of different ages and backgrounds, and that makes it just fun.”
The players are excited to share taiko with whoever walks in the Kerr Scott Building’s doors on Saturday.
“It’s part of the experience to feel the vibration, to be very up close and just feel your body shake from the sound,” Nanako Armstrong said. “It’s not just the sound that you get to enjoy; it’s also what you feel in your body and what you see.”
What: The N.C. Japan Summer Festival
When: 1 to 8 p.m. Saturday, July 29
Where: Kerr Scott Building, N.C. State Fairgrounds, 1025 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh.
Cost: $4 online in advance at www.ncjapanfest.org/tickets or $5 at the door. Food prices range from $2 to $5.